News / Middle East

In Yemen, Women Take One Step Forward, Two Back

A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, September 26, 2011.
A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa, September 26, 2011.
A halting and sometimes violent transfer of governing power is under way in Yemen and if the transition goes smoothly, one of the biggest beneficiaries could be the nation’s women.

When protests rocked the capital Sana’a last year, part of uprisings across the Arab world, tens of thousands of women were prominent among the demonstrators, many taking a leading role.

Yemen’s president at the time, Ali Abdullah Saleh, responded by appealing to religious sensitivities, accusing the women of “un-Islamic” behavior.

Saleh is out of office now, forced to turn over power to Vice President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi this past February. But Yemen’s women are still demonstrating, still pressing for their rights and arguing that their cause is fully compatible with Islam.

Yemen Uprising Photo Gallery

  • January 2011: Yemeni women hold placards and a photograph of activist Tawakkul Karman during an anti-government rally in Sanaa. Placards read in Arabic, "Arresting Karman is an unethical incident against Yemeni Women."
  • February 18, 2011: Supporters of the Yemeni government hurl stones at anti-government demonstrators, not pictured, during clashes in Sanaa on what organizers called Friday of Rage.
  • March 10, 2011: Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh speaks to supporters during a gathering in Sanaa.
  • April 5, 2011: Anti-government protestors carry a wounded man during clashes with Yemeni forces in Taiz.
  • May 27, 2011: Women shout slogans during an anti-government rally against Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa.
  • June 25, 2011: Yemeni women, wearing headbands that read in Arabic, "Housewives," participate in a demonstration in Sanaa, demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Women have been fighting to keep a voice for their rights sound
  • July 17, 2011: Female anti-government protestors display their hands with Arabic markings telling President President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his supporters to step down, during a demonstration in Sanaa.
  • August 12, 2011: A female anti-government demonstrator holds a placard demanding the prosecution of Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sanaa.
  • September 19, 2011: Yemeni Anti-government protestors carry Hassan Wadaf, a cameraman wounded in clashes with security forces. Several people were killed in recent days as snipers picked off protesters from rooftops  in Sanaa.
  • October 7, 2011: Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman, next to husband, Mohammed Esmaeel al-Nehmy (R), speaks to journalists in Sanaa after the announcement that she had won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with  Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Lib
  • October 26, 2011:  Yemeni women protestors burn veils during a demonstration in Sanaa, in a symbolic act meant to attract attention to recent crackdowns by government forces against the popular uprising.
  • November 23, 2011: Photo released by Saudi Press Agency shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh signing an agreement to step down, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
  • December 10, 2011: Nobel Peace Prize winners Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, (C) and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee (R) receive their diplomas and medals from Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland (L) at City Hall in Oslo, Norway.
  • January 30, 2012: Members of electoral sub-committees attend a training session in Sanaa. Yemen's outgoing president Ali Abdullah Saleh has handed over power to his deputy Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, paving the way for a presidential election on February 21.
  • February 21, 2012: Women queue at a polling station in Al Hasaba neighborhood in Sanaa to vote for a replacement for President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Vice President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi stands uncontested as a consensus candidate.

In the forefront of that struggle is Tawakul Karman, a charismatic journalist, politician and women’s rights activist who led many of the anti-government demonstrations last year and became the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Islam, like other religions, is not in conflict with women’s rights, democracy or any human rights principles or values like equality, justice and dignity,” Karman said in a telephone interview. “These are the values of the divine faiths.”

Convictions like these may be difficult to promote in Yemen, a poor and deeply traditional society where women have a literacy rate only half that of men.

Despite the difficulties, Yemeni women are pushing ahead, many using social media techniques to press their case. One of them is an activist and blogger who calls herself “NoonArabia.” She doesn’t use her real name because she still fears retaliation.

“There is nothing in Islam that says a woman cannot work or play [a] vital role in society beyond the walls of her home,” said NoonArabia. “Fundamentalists always misuse Islam as a means to suppress women.”

Gallup poll on Yemeni women's rights after the uprising:

Yemeni men and women who want Sharia as source of new legislation:

Women 58% Men 68%

Women who believe they should have same legal rights as men:

Women 68%  Men 53%

Women and men who agree boys and girls should have equal access to education:

Women 91% Men 90%

Men and women who support women working outside the home:

Women 87% Men 59%

Source: Gallup’s After the Arab Uprising: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding
According to NoonArabia, the main things hindering women’s progress in Yemen are social customs and tribal laws, not religion. Women who march in demonstrations, she said, are taking a “huge step in breaking the taboo barrier.”

“Yemeni women have proved themselves as partners in the struggle for change,” NoonArabia said, adding that their aim is to use their activism as a step to decision-making roles at all economic and political levels.

And the expectation among Yemeni activists is that Karman, with her Nobel Peace prize and prominent role in the ongoing uprising, will be leading the way.

​“Women have to be present at all levels of the transitional government and future structures,” Karman said. “And this is what we’re fighting for. We don’t fight just for the rights of women as women, but as citizens.”

But Isobel Coleman, a Middle East scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations in (New York or Washington) advises caution when it comes to expectations about Yemen.

“This is a very traditional society,” Coleman said, adding that Yemen may have to undergo a “wholesale cultural revolution” before it deep-seated change is possible.

Yemen’s traditional resistance to change is, perhaps, most visible in Sana’a’s Taghyeer, or “Change,” square, which has been the symbolic center of the uprising since last year.

When the uprising against the Saleh government began in earnest last year and Change Square became the opposition rallying point, women were prominent in the demonstrations. They were side by side with the men as the uprising gained momentum and even slept in tents set up in the square.

Traditionalists were horrified and that’s when Saleh issued his decree that the women were behaving in an “un-Islamic” way. 

A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
x
A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
A woman takes photos of men from behind a barrier at Taghyeer (Change) Square where anti-government protesters have been camping for more than a year to demand regime change in Sanaa, April 10, 2012.
These days, other opposition groups have taken the lead in Change Square and erected a shoulder-high wooden fence to separate the male from female demonstrators.

“Traditional gender segregation had insinuated itself into the center of the revolt from the Islamic groups who put a fence around them,” said Rahma Hugaira, president of Yemen’s Media Women, an opposition group.

She said many women demonstrators concluded they were being manipulated by political groups vying for power and decided to leave the square and give up the public demonstrations.

Complicating the political and rights struggle is Yemen’s ongoing violence. Tribal clashes continue unabated in the north of the country and the military is battling al-Qaida-linked militants in the south. In recent days, pro-Saleh factions of the military even tried to take over the Defense Ministry in Sana’a.

But Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations said despite the violence and political upheavals, Yemen’s women have made their demands for equal rights an important issue in the nation’s political development. She said a more educated generation of women is emerging in Yemen and in neighboring nations and that demands for equality will only increase.   

And Susan Markham, director of women’s political participation at Washington’s National Democratic Institute, said Yemen is “moving in the right direction.”

Markham said Yemeni women have established what amounts to “a school of scholars” studying Islamic texts and finding ways to accommodate gender equality with Sharia religious law – a necessity if further progress is to be achieved.  

One signal of possible progress comes from Yemen’s Minister for Human Rights, Hooria Mashoor, who said the country’s National Women’s Conference has proposed adding language to a new constitution requiring a 30 percent quota for women in all state agencies.

The country is just beginning to discuss the content of a new constitution, but experts say the fact that women’s rights issues are being seriously discussed is an important step in an evolving process.

“No one can now marginalize them; and they are now moving on,” Mashoor said of Yemeni women.

“My guess,” said Coleman, “is there will be one step forward, one step back; two steps forward, one step back. But, you know, history is on the side of women.”

You May Like

Video Iran Nuclear Deal Becomes US Campaign Issue

Voters in three crucial battleground states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - overwhelmingly oppose nuclear deal with Iran More

With IS in Coalition Cross-Hairs, al-Qaida's Syria Affiliate Reemerges

Jabhat al-Nusra has rebounded, increasingly casting itself as a critical player in battle for Syria’s future More

Lessons Learned From Katrina, 10 Years Later

FEMA chief Craig Fugate says key changes include better preparation, improved coordination among state, federal assistance agencies More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Godwin from: Nigeria
August 21, 2012 12:55 PM
Women are their own enemy. A lot of effort is being made to bring them up the wrung of the ladder but before you know it, they tell you you've made a mistake. In Nigeria no one is asking a woman to cover herself 100% even in the hot sun, but they have chosen to do it just to prove that they are extremists. The music that women love most is the one that has harsh words and proposes harsh treatment of women, and they prove it by their action that they love suppression, so why cry for them? Even if they are granted equality with men, they'll still prefer conditions of slavish appearance to prove they are moslems. Which is why they go into extreme and severe dressing in cultures like Nigeria, USA and Europe where freedom of expression is fully guaranteed.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs